(Re)Writer's Block

Before I saw Walt Stepp’s Mark Twain’s Blues I re-read Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As Huck might have said, I’m mighty glad I did. Walt Stepp’s re-imagination of Twain’s most famous work begins with the depressed author preparing for one of the humorous speaking tours that made him an international celebrity. Twain’s excursions were launched to pay off his bills, his expensive house, and debts amassed from misguided investments in various inventions, including a typesetting machine quickly rendered obsolete by superior technology. Stepp imagines that Twain is despondent in large part because he views himself as a caricature and feels particular guilt over the trite ending of his masterpiece.

Against this backdrop, Stepp brings to life the central characters of the book: Huck Finn and the runaway slave, Jim. When we meet them, they are now some twenty years older and wiser, and both have their own ideas about how the novel should have ended. They suddenly appear onstage and berate Twain for selling them out in what many consider a woefully disappointing and manipulative ending to his Great American Novel. Jim, now 50 and Huck, about 32 and with an odd resemblance to Kid Rock, aren’t playing anymore.

You must re-familiarize yourself with the novel to understand and enjoy this play. Unless your memory is unusually strong, high-school recollections of the plot won’t suffice.

The novel ends with the insertion of Tom Sawyer into the action. Tom, knowing that Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, has died and freed him in her will, nonetheless — and strictly for the pursuit of boyish pleasures — withholds this information and helps Huck try to gain freedom for Jim. Tom’s farcical antics, in which Huck often acquiesces, stand, for many chapters, in stark contrast to the very dramatic and life-threatening ordeals endured by Huck and Jim as they rafted down the Mississippi River. Twain’s ending also miraculously ties up loose ends: for instance, we learn that Huck’s drunken and abusive father has conveniently died.

Walt Stepp’s play takes Twain to task for his cop-out ending, but Stepp’s ending is not necessarily a better one. It’s simply different and permits greater psychic freedom and growth for the two main characters. Yet, to understand his creation, one must know where Twain ends and Stepp begins.

The mature Huck and Jim act out a number of altered scenes from the book with Twain himself as their rapt — sometimes skeptical, sometimes humble — audience. Theirs is a more psychologically complex and brutal ending, halting the nauseating innocence in which they believe Twain enshrined their adventures. This time around, Jim won’t stand for being the good-natured and grateful slave, humoring the whims and pranks of a pubescent white boy. Huck won’t let Twain make their raft miss Cairo, Illinois, in the fog, where Jim would have been able to gain freedom.

The text of the play is a combination of Twain’s own words and those of Stepp, who puts many of them into a total of 19 songs, often with dance, all competently performed with the aid of an onstage pianist, by the three men and actress Bonne Kramer, who plays Twain's mother and several of the novel’s female characters. As Huck and Jim sing their accusations at Twain, the author admits, among other things, that he had to finish the book quickly for the money and could not contrive a better ending.

Cathy Smalls' costuming admirably evokes the period. Actor Bill Tatum is a dead ringer for Twain and the staging ably elicits a dressing room in a Southern theater at the turn of the twentieth century. Tom Herman directs with imagination and resourcefulness; for example, he comes up with a nifty onstage trick to simulate canoe rowing. Unfortunately, though, at two hours the play becomes tedious.

Mark Twain’s Blues is, above all else, a labor of love written by someone clearly enthralled by Twain and his canon; it’s often esoteric and concerned with minutiae. The fact that there is little or no historical support for some of Stepp’s assumptions about the reasons for Twain’s state of mind requires the audience to indulge Stepp’s imagination in a way not dissimilar to how Huck indulges Tom’s.

Twain fans will find Mark Twain’s Blues energizing and provocative. General audiences will find it pleasant but ultimately enervating.

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